Former Trappist Abbot Father Thomas Keating passed away Oct. 25. Father Keating was the primary architect of the centering prayer movement, which has thousands of adherents throughout the world. From the beginning, centering prayer has been surrounded by controversy. What is centering prayer? Is it in keeping with the Catholic tradition? Should Catholics practice it?
To practice centering prayer, you sit quietly by yourself, with the intent to be in God’s presence. Then you try to ignore every thought, feeling or inspiration that comes to you. When your mind starts to follow a thought, you say a word that you have chosen beforehand. Practitioners call this a “sacred word.” Then you return to silence and ignoring thoughts.
Why is this method controversial? Recall from my last column that the Catechism of the Catholic Church recognizes three expressions of personal prayer: vocal prayer (which we memorize, such as the Our Father); meditation (where we ponder Scripture and converse with God about it); and contemplation (a simple gaze on God that is a gift from him). Centering prayer is obviously not vocal prayer. Neither is it meditation in the Christian sense, since it turns away from thoughts, rather than pondering the faith. What about contemplation? Since contemplation is a gift that we can only receive, centering prayer cannot be contemplation.
Centering prayer is a particular method. In centering prayer, the soul is actively trying to manage thoughts. This thought-management (some call it “making the mind blank,” although practitioners reject that description) is the same objective found in Eastern meditation techniques. Some types of Eastern meditation repeat a mantra endlessly. Some use exterior sounds like vibrations. Others focus on breathing. All of them, however, use a tool to stop the mind from paying attention to any thoughts or feelings. Such thought management changes one’s level of consciousness, bringing the subconscious mind to the fore.
People who meditate in these ways often become more tolerant and peaceful. They may better control their emotions and feel more at one with others and with the world. Christians who use these methods may think they are growing in holiness when they see these results. However, this type of meditation is not prayer.
Prayer is a dialogue with God. To pray we must either offer something to God or receive something from him. When Hindus and Buddhists meditate, they are not communicating with God. Few of them even desire to do so. Many of them find the question of the existence of God irrelevant. Others believe in many gods or that we are all a part of the divine being. We cannot change these methods into a means of union with the Triune God just by intending to be in his presence.
St. Teresa of Avila warned people about trying to ignore all thoughts. “Taking it upon oneself to stop and suspend thought is what I mean should not be done; nor should we cease to work with the intellect, because otherwise we would be left like cold simpletons and be doing neither one thing nor the other. … Trying to keep the soul’s faculties busy and thinking you can make them be quiet is foolish.” (“Book of Her Life,” Ch. 12). In other words, God makes the mind be quiet when he gives the soul contemplation. Until then, we need to use the mind to think about God so that we might grow to love him better.
Centering prayer stands outside the Christian tradition. As I pray for the repose of Father Keating’s soul, I also pray for a revival of good teaching on deepening prayer.
Connie Rossini has just published a new, expanded edition of her book “Is Centering Prayer Catholic?” It is available as an ebook or paperback from Amazon. Her blog iscenteringprayercatholic.com has many free resources that further explain the problems with centering prayer.